epa06078777 (FILE) - Tourists stand on a panoramic rock looking at old colonial residential buildings on Gulangyu island in the foreground, and buildings on Xiamen island in the background in Xiamen, Fujian province, China, 26 December 2016 (reissued 10 July 2017). Xiamen, formerly called Amoy, was one of the first Chinese cities to become a Special Economic Zone in the 1970's, boosting development and opening Chinese companies to the outside world. Over the past decades Xiamen has become a destination for Chinese tourists thanks to its mild climate, beaches and colonial buildings. Kulangsu was listed as new heritage site by members of the 41st session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee on 08 July 2017. The UNESCO meeting runs in Krakow, Poland from 02 to 12 July. EPA/STR
Tourism overload: Visitors survey Unesco world heritage site Gulangyu in southern China © EPA

As China campaigned to have Unesco grant its prestigious “world heritage” status to the historic town of Gulangyu, locals enjoyed a welcome influx of tourist money.

The former international settlement was duly given its Unesco certificate this week — but the latest success in President Xi Jinping’s drive to promote Chinese culture has come at a cost. The government had to curb the visitor boom to show it was serious about preserving the entrepôt’s unique architecture, a blend of European, Southeast Asian and Chinese styles. 

“The most important thing for us is to have more tourists but now there are fewer so sales are down,” says Huang Meirong, a jewellery shop owner, as she recounts how she went from itinerant worker to budding entrepreneur thanks to the tourist bonanza.

China has become adept at the kind of international lobbying required to win Unesco acclaim, with its 52 world heritage sites ranking it second only to Italy. Beijing also hopes its nominee will be selected as the UN cultural organisation’s next director-general in October, boosting its rising global influence. 

But as Mr Xi intensifies a push to showcase Chinese soft power at home and abroad, Gulangyu’s experience highlights China’s struggle to balance the promotion of heritage against rapid economic development, fuelled by the growth of the domestic tourism market. 

“Like other countries, heritage is employed by China as a powerful instrument to reinforce national identity, showing that we have a glorious past,” says Yujie Zhu, a Chinese heritage lecturer at the Australian National University. But he adds that rapid commercialisation often threatens the local way of life and culture.

Gulangyu — known as Kulangsu in the local Fujian dialect — is a typical example of this trend, which has been repeated from Tibet to the Great Wall. 

The 2 sq km island just off the thriving port city of Xiamen gets more than 10m visitors a year, almost double the number that visited the entire Philippine archipelago last year. 

On peak days in the past, more than 100,000 visitors clogged the winding, vehicle-free streets of the island, whose resident population is just 20,000. But the government capped the numbers at 35,000 per day this year as part of the Unesco bid. 

That is bad news for business owners like Su Zhijian, who used the handsome profits from the Gulangyu souvenir shop he set up two years ago to buy his first home in the nearby city of Zhangzhou. 

“The government has to balance preservation against the need for economic development,” he says, recalling how he could not afford a home on his previous salary as an office worker. 

Some longer-term residents of the island, which was a major source of Chinese seafarers and emigrants before Xiamen was formally opened for foreign trade after the British won the first opium war in 1842, think the cooling of the tourism market is overdue. 

A convenience store owner who only gives her name as Mrs Chen says property speculators have been exploiting the tourism boom, pushing the rent for her small store up to Rmb38,000 ($5,860) a month. 

“These property agents are trying to force us out,” she says, as she sells ice cream to a group of young Chinese tourists. “With these rents, profits are OK in the summer but we struggle in winter.” 

Zhang Kan, a professor of history at Xiamen University, says China needs to manage commercialisation better, listening to local voices instead of allowing them to be pushed out by external businesses.

“Managing heritage is not just about maintaining historic buildings, it’s about preserving the local culture,” he says.

Additional reporting by Wang Xueqiao in Gulangyu

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